Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 47)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Gảcia Marquez
On one of his early visits, when he was talking about his ships, Florentino Ariza had given Fermina Daza a formal invitation to take a pleasure cruise along the river. With one more day of traveling by train she could visit the national capital, which they, like most Caribbeans of their generation, still called by the name it bore until the last century: Santa Fe. But she maintained the prejudices of her husband, and she did not want to visit a cold, dismal city where the women did not leave their houses except to attend five o’clock Mass and where, she had been told, they could not enter ice cream parlors or public offices, and where the funerals disrupted traffic at all hours of the day or night, and where it had been drizzling since the year one: worse than in Paris. On the other hand, she felt a very strong attraction to the river, she wanted to see the alligators sunning themselves on the sandy banks, she wanted to be awakened in the middle of the night by the woman’s cry of the manatees, but the idea of so arduous a journey at her age, and a lone widow besides, seemed unrealistic to her.
Florentino Ariza repeated the invitation later on, when she had decided to go on living without her husband, and then it had seemed more plausible. But after her quarrel with her daughter, embittered by the insults to her father, by her rancor toward her dead husband, by her anger at the hypocritical duplicities of Lucrecia del Real, whom she had considered her best friend for so many years, she felt herself superfluous in her own house. One afternoon, while she was drinking her infusion of worldwide leaves, she looked toward the morass of the patio where the tree of her misfortune would never bloom again. “What I would like is to walk out of this house, and keep going, going, going, and never come back,” she said.
“Take a boat,” said Florentino Ariza. Fermina Daza looked at him thoughtfully. “Well, I might just do that,” she said.
A moment before she said it, the thought had not even occurred to her, but all she had to do was admit the possibility for it to be considered a reality. Her son and daughter-inlaw were delighted when they heard the news. Florentino Ariza hastened to point out that on his vessels Fermina Daza would be a guest of honor, she would have a cabin to herself which would be just like home, she would enjoy perfect service, and the Captain himself would attend to her safety and well-being. He brought route maps to encourage her, picture postcards of furious sunsets, poems to the primitive paradise of the Magdalena written by illustrious travelers and by those who had become travelers by virtue of the poems. She would glance at them when she was in the mood.
“You do not have to cajole me as if I were a baby,” she told him. “If I go, it will be because I have decided to and not because the landscape is interesting.”
When her son suggested that his wife accompany her, she cut him off abruptly: “I am too big to have anyone take care of me.” She herself arranged the details of the trip. She felt immense relief at the thought of spending eight days traveling upriver and five on the return, with no more than the bare necessities: half a dozen cotton dresses, her toiletries, a pair of shoes for embarking and disembarking, her house slippers for the journey, and nothing else: her lifetime dream.
In January 1824, Commodore Johann Bernard Elbers, the father of river navigation, had registered the first steamboat to sail the Magdalena River, a primitive old fortyhorsepower wreck named Fidelity. More than a century later, one seventh of July at six o’clock in the evening, Dr. Urbino Daza and his wife accompanied Fermina Daza as she boarded the boat that was to carry her on her first river voyage. It was the first vessel built in the local shipyards and had been christened New Fidelity in memory of its glorious ancestor. Fermina Daza could never believe that so significant a name for them both was indeed a historical coincidence and not another conceit born of Florentino Ariza’s chronic romanticism.
In any case, unlike the other riverboats, ancient and modem, New Fidelity boasted a suite next to the Captain’s quarters that was spacious and comfortable: a sitting room with bamboo furniture covered in festive colors, a double bedroom decorated in Chinese motifs, a bathroom with tub and shower, a large, enclosed observation deck with hanging ferns and an unobstructed view toward the front and both sides of the boat, and a silent cooling system that kept out external noises and maintained a climate of perpetual spring. These deluxe accommodations, known as the Presidential Suite because three Presidents of the Republic had already made the trip in them, had no commercial purpose but were reserved for high-ranking officials and very special guests. Florentino Ariza had ordered the suite built for that public purpose as soon as he was named President of the R.C.C., but his private conviction was that sooner or later it was going to be the joyous refuge of his wedding trip with Fermina Daza.
When in fact the day arrived, she took possession of the Presidential Suite as its lady and mistress. The ship’s Captain honored Dr. Urbino Daza and his wife, and Florentino Ariza, with champagne and smoked salmon. His name was Diego Samaritano, he wore a white linen uniform that was absolutely correct, from the tips of his boots to his cap with the R.C.C. insignia embroidered in gold thread, and he possessed, in common with other river captains, the stoutness of a ceiba tree, a peremptory voice, and the manners of a Florentine cardinal.
At seven o’clock the first departure warning was sounded, and Fermina Daza felt it resonate with a sharp pain in her left ear. The night before, her dreams had been furrowed with evil omens that she did not dare to decipher. Very early in the morning she had ordered the car to take her to the nearby seminary burial ground, which in those days was called La Manga Cemetery, and as she stood in front of his crypt, she made peace with her dead husband in a monologue in which she freely recounted all the just recriminations she had choked back. Then she told him the details of the trip and said goodbye for now. She refused to tell anyone anything except that she was going away, which is what she had done whenever she had gone to Europe, in order to avoid exhausting farewells. Despite all her travels, she felt as if this were her first trip, and as the day approached her agitation increased. Once she was on board she felt abandoned and sad, and she wanted to be alone to cry.
When the final warning sounded, Dr. Urbino Daza and his wife bade her an undramatic goodbye, and Florentino Ariza accompanied them to the gangplank. Dr. Urbino Daza tried to stand aside so that Florentino Ariza could follow his wife, and only then did he realize that Florentino Ariza was also taking the trip. Dr. Urbino Daza could not hide his confusion.
“But we did not discuss this,” he said.
Florentino Ariza showed him the key to his cabin with too evident an intention: an ordinary cabin on the common deck. But to Dr. Urbino Daza this did not seem sufficient proof of innocence. He glanced at his wife in consternation, with the eyes of a drowning man looking for support, but her eyes were ice. She said in a very low, harsh voice: “You too?” Yes: he too, like his sister Ofelia, thought there was an age at which love began to be indecent. But he was able to recover in time, and he said goodbye to Florentino Ariza with a handshake that was more resigned than grateful.
From the railing of the salon, Florentino Ariza watched them disembark. Just as he had hoped and wished, Dr. Urbino Daza and his wife turned to look at him before climbing into their automobile, and he waved his hand in farewell. They both responded in kind. He remained at the railing until the automobile disappeared in the dust of the freight yard, and then he went to his cabin to change into clothing more suitable for his first dinner on board in the Captain’s private dining room.
It was a splendid evening, which Captain Diego Samaritano seasoned with succulent tales of his forty years on the river, but Fermina Daza had to make an enormous effort to appear amused. Despite the fact that the final warning had been sounded at eight o’clock, when visitors had been obliged to leave and the gangplank had been raised, the boat did not set sail until the Captain had finished eating and gone up to the bridge to direct the operation. Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza stayed at the railing, surrounded by noisy passengers who made bets on how well they could identify the lights in the city, until the boat sailed out of the bay, moved along invisible channels and through swamps spattered with the undulating lights of the fishermen, and at last took a deep breath in the open air of the Great Magdalena River. Then the band burst into a popular tune, there was a joyous stampede of passengers, and in a mad rush, the dancing began.
Fermina Daza preferred to take refuge in her cabin. She had not said a word for the entire evening, and Florentino Ariza allowed her to remain lost in her thoughts. He interrupted her only to say good night outside her cabin, but she was not tired, just a little chilly, and she suggested that they sit for a while on her private deck to watch the river. Florentino Ariza wheeled two wicker easy chairs to the railing, turned off the lights, placed a woolen shawl around her shoulders, and sat down beside her. With surprising skill, she rolled a cigarette from the little box of tobacco that he had brought her. She smoked it slowly, with the lit end inside her mouth, not speaking, and then she rolled another two and smoked them one right after the other. Sip by sip, Florentino Ariza drank two thermoses of mountain coffee.
The lights of the city had disappeared over the horizon. Seen from the darkened deck in the light of a full moon, the smooth, silent river and the pastureland on either bank became a phosphorescent plain. From time to time one could see a straw hut next to the great bonfires signaling that wood for the ships’ boilers was on sale. Florentino Ariza still had dim memories of the journey of his youth, and in dazzling flashes of lightning the sight of the river called them back to life as if they had happened yesterday. He recounted some of them to Fermina Daza in the belief that this might animate her, but she sat smoking in another world. Florentino Ariza renounced his memories and left her alone with hers, and in the meantime he rolled cigarettes and passed them to her already lit, until the box was empty. The music stopped after midnight, the voices of the passengers dispersed and broke into sleepy whispers, and two hearts, alone in the shadows on the deck, were beating in time to the breathing of the ship.
After a long while, Florentino Ariza looked at Fermina Daza by the light of the river. She seemed ghostly, her sculptured profile softened by a tenuous blue light, and he realized that she was crying in silence. But instead of consoling her or waiting until all her tears had been shed, which is what she wanted, he allowed panic to overcome him. “Do you want to be alone?” he asked.
“If I did, I would not have told you to come in,” she said.
Then he reached out with two icy fingers in the darkness, felt for the other hand in the darkness, and found it waiting for him. Both were lucid enough to realize, at the same fleeting instant, that the hands made of old bones were not the hands they had imagined before touching. In the next moment, however, they were. She began to speak of her dead husband in the present tense, as if he were alive, and Florentino Ariza knew then that for her, too, the time had come to ask herself with dignity, with majesty, with an irrepressible desire to live, what she should do with the love that had been left behind without a master.
Fermina Daza stopped smoking in order not to let go of the hand that was still in hers. She was lost in her longing to understand. She could not conceive of a husband better than hers had been, and yet when she recalled their life she found more difficulties than pleasures, too many mutual misunderstandings, useless arguments, unresolved angers. Suddenly she sighed: “It is incredible how one can be happy for so many years in the midst of so many squabbles, so many problems, damn it, and not really know if it was love or not.” By the time she finished unburdening herself, someone had turned off the moon. The boat moved ahead at its steady pace, one foot in front of the other: an immense, watchful animal. Fermina Daza had returned from her longing.
“Go now,” she said.
Florentino Ariza pressed her hand, bent toward her, and tried to kiss her on the cheek. But she refused, in her hoarse, soft voice.
“Not now,” she said to him. “I smell like an old woman.”
She heard him leave in the darkness, she heard his steps on the stairs, she heard him cease to exist until the next day. Fermina Daza lit another cigarette, and as she smoked she saw Dr. Juvenal Urbino in his immaculate linen suit, with his professional rigor, his dazzling charm, his official love, and he tipped his white hat in a gesture of farewell from another boat out of the past. “We men are the miserable slaves of prejudice,” he had once said to her. “But when a woman decides to sleep with a man, there is no wall she will not scale, no fortress she will not destroy, no moral consideration she will not ignore at its very root: there is no God worth worrying about.” Fermina Daza sat motionless until dawn, thinking about Florentino Ariza, not as the desolate sentinel in the little Park of the Evangels, whose memory did not awaken even a spark of nostalgia in her, but as he was now, old and lame, but real: the man who had always been within reach and whom she could never acknowledge. As the breathing boat carried her toward the splendor of the day’s first roses, all that she asked of God was that Florentino Ariza would know how to begin again the next day. He did. Fermina Daza instructed the steward to let her sleep as long as she wanted, and when she awoke there was a vase on the night table with a fresh white rose, drops of dew still on it, as well as a letter from Florentino Ariza with as many pages as he had written since his farewell to her. It was a calm letter that did not attempt to do more than express the state of mind that had held him captive since the previous night: it was as lyrical as the others, as rhetorical as all of them, but it had a foundation in reality. Fermina Daza read it with some embarrassment because of the shameless racing of her heart. It concluded with the request that she advise the steward when she was ready, for the Captain was waiting on the bridge to show them the operation of the ship.